Sports Hockey

NHL PLAYOFFS

Hawks overcome Harding's heroics to win series opener

By Robert Tychkowski

Chicago Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell celebrates the game-winning goal as Minnesota Wild’s Jonas Brodin skates by during Game 1 of the NHL Western Conference quarterfinals in Chicago, April 30, 2013. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Chicago Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell celebrates the game-winning goal as Minnesota Wild’s Jonas Brodin skates by during Game 1 of the NHL Western Conference quarterfinals in Chicago, April 30, 2013. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

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CHICAGO - 

It didn't seem fair.

A goalie battling back from multiple sclerosis, who hadn't started a game in almost three months, thrown in against the powerful Chicago Blackhawks on 15 minutes notice for the opening game of a playoff series.

Didn't seem fair.

Some 77 minutes later, it wasn't.

While people in Minnesota were shielding their eyes in anticipation of the cruelty that awaited poor Josh Harding -- with no back-up he'd have to play all game, no matter how bad it got -- he came one shot away from writing the most uplifting story of the season.

As it stands, a great story was a tough ending.

Forced into action after Nik Backstrom came down with an injury in the pre-game warm-up, Harding lugged his rust and uncertainty into the net at the United Centre and fought for almost four full periods before Bryan Bickell scored with 3:25 left in overtime to give the Blackhawks a series-opening 2-1 victory.

"I don't usually pull moves like that, backhand five hole, I usually get it and shoot it," said Chicago's hero. "I don't know, I must have blacked out after the hash marks."

Harding, who needed some three months off while his body adjusted to his MS medication, had no business taking anyone to overtime, but turned in a first-star effort, stopping 35 of 37 Chicago shots.

"Kudos to him, not knowing he's going to be playing," said Bickell. "He ended up playing a great game."

Too bad about the ending, though.

"Hards in a pretty incredible story," said Minnesota's Devin Setoguchi. "I don't think there's any professional athlete who has MS and is playing other than him. He held us in there. It's a tough one to swallow, but that's the way it goes in the playoffs."

This was supposed to be a rout. Some people were picking Chicago to win the best-of-seven series in about three games, and that was before all the pre-game carnage.

First Jason Pominville, a key player who originally expected to dress for Game 1, woke up with a relapse in his concussion symptoms and couldn't go. Then Backstrom came up lame.

So Harding, who had only played 41 minutes since Feb. 7, was thrown to the wolves. Or, Hawks, as it were.

Sure enough, first shot of the game went in. Soft goal.

Only it went into Chicago's net.

Cal Clutterbuck, one of nine Wild players making his post-season debut, snapped one past Corey Crawford at 4:49 and the rout was off.

Harding didn't exactly face a firing squad in the first period -- shots were six apiece -- but he stopped them all and, surprisingly, if not stunningly, the Wild led 1-0 at the first intermission.

"After Nik got hurt I just kind of figured I was in, so I took the rest of the warm-up and prepared like I was playing," he said with a shrug. "We would have liked a better outcome, but we put up a fight tonight."

Chicago tied it in the second on Marian Hossa's power-play goal, but that was all the damage they could do in regulation.

Despite the loss, the Wild served notice that this might not be the walkover many people expect.

"They're a great team, they played great defensively," said Hossa. "It wasn't easy, but we found a way to win. This is huge."

Wild coach Mike Yeo didn't say anything about Backstrom's injury, nor his status for Game 2.


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